17 May 2009

Obama, ND, Alba

I had wanted to say all sorts of different things about Obama's speech and award at Notre Dame's commencement exercises, set to begin in about a half hour.

As it turns out though, I'm leaving for Scotland for a bit of holiday this afternoon. Expect no blogging from these parts for the next week or so.

Regarding Obama and ND, I'll say this:
Though ours is a godless age, it is the very opposite of irreligious. The true believer is everywhere on the march, shaping the world in his own image. Whether we line up with him or against him, it is well we should know all we can concerning his nature and potentialities.
-- Eric Hoffer, The True Believer
If Notre Dame wishes to support Catholicism (and I believe it does) and politics and the state has become the dominant contemporary religion (and I believe it has) then the choice of a commencement speaker based on his ability to gather popularity and power to himself is a poor choice. It is for this reason and this reason alone that I think heaping honors on statesmen is not the correct choice for ND to have made. I don't expect this to convince anyone who isn't both at least somewhat Christian and extremely libertarian, but there it is.

To all those being graduated today in South Bend and elsewhere, well done.

Now I'm off to enjoy some castles, some museums, some whisky and ale, some shellfish, and whatever else Scotland throws my way.

15 May 2009

Carl Hollywood's Hack

Rack up my lack of blogging in the past week to the standard end-of-semester hustle and run around. Papers to be written, reports to be filed, meetings to be taken, etc.

Last weekend was spent in a 72 hour hack revolving around some rather hairier-than-expected graph algorithms.* I was repeatedly reminded of the "Carl Hollywood's Hack" chapter in The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer. (Which I still think it Stephenson's best work, though in fairness I have not read Anathem yet.) I can't tell you how many night's I've wished I could cover an entire table top of a tea house in paper-like computer terminals, spawn off queries and processes all around the world, and of course call out on occasion for fresh tea and massages. Sadly I am forced to make my own tea and the closest I get to massages is cracking my knuckles.

Oh, and one of our collaborators decided we should submit something to the upcoming Psychonomic Society conference, so there was a bit of a scramble to get a short write-up together on 72 hours notice as well. That's just what you need when you're learning Ruby, solving graph problems, designing experiments, giving two talks in a week and writing up a different paper on a tight deadline. Cripes.

* In short: find all pairwise shortest paths in a graph. And before you say "Use Djikstra, you fool!" or -- more correctly -- "Use Floyd-Warshall, you fool!" know that I mean all shortest paths including ties, so if there are k paths from s to t all with length c, I need all k of them. This turns out to be a non-trivial extension. Compounding the problem is that I was doing this concurrently with learning Ruby for the first time. I remain convinced that my dynamic programming approach wasn't working because I had some wires crossed about how the hash-of-arrays-of-arrays I was using was being indexed, and not because my dynamic programming chops are about three years rusty. In the end I found Brandes 2008 ("On variants of shortest-path betweenness centrality and their generic computation") to be extremely useful in helping me to partially side-step the problem and get at the numbers I really needed about the many shortest paths.

14 May 2009

"Paulson gave banks no choice on government stakes"

Reuters | Paulson gave banks no choice on government stakes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Documents made public on Wednesday confirm former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave nine major banks no choice but to allow the government to take equity stakes in them as the Bush administration moved to address turmoil in the financial industry.


"We don't believe it is tenable to opt out because doing so would leave you vulnerable and exposed. If a capital infusion is not appealing, you should be aware your regulator will require it in any circumstance," the document said, citing Paulson talking points.
Attention to all the leftist conspiracy theorists who spent eight years wailing about the Bush administration taking orders from their corporate overlords: You got it backwards. (Well, sideways at least). For once, I wish you were right. I'd take that to the fascistic corporatism masquerading as free-marketism that we ended up with.

Attention to whoever masterminded Bush's "head fake towards pro-market rhetoric while implementing the same central planning bullshit as everyone else" strategy: screw yourself.

06 May 2009

Bad news for Johann Gambolputty...

Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dangle-dongle-
dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic- grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich- himbleeisen-bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwurstle- gerspurten-mit-tzwei-macheluber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shoenendanker- kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm would be distressed to learn than multiply-hyphenated names are not legal in Germany. Apparently "people must keep their surnames to a maneageable length in order to secure the name's power of identification," according to the Constitutional Court. George V would be happy to know that switching from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor was so ahead of it's time, though.

05 May 2009

Legal vs Technological Problems

Schneier on Security | An Expectation of Online Privacy

This loss of control over our data has other effects, too. Our protections against police abuse have been severely watered down. The courts have ruled that the police can search your data without a warrant, as long as others hold that data. If the police want to read the e-mail on your computer, they need a warrant; but they don't need one to read it from the backup tapes at your ISP.

This isn't a technological problem; it's a legal problem. The courts need to recognize that in the information age, virtual privacy and physical privacy don't have the same boundaries. We should be able to control our own data, regardless of where it is stored. We should be able to make decisions about the security and privacy of that data, and have legal recourse should companies fail to honor those decisions. And just as the Supreme Court eventually ruled that tapping a telephone was a Fourth Amendment search, requiring a warrant -- even though it occurred at the phone company switching office and not in the target's home or office -- the Supreme Court must recognize that reading personal e-mail at an ISP is no different.
[Emphasis mine.]

This distinction of technological and legal shortcomings is so obvious and yet isn't made nearly enough. It applies to a lot more than privacy, too.

One of the most common complaints I hear from anti-GM people is that ADM or Monsanto or someone is going to end up owning the genome of [common crop], and then it will be illegal for anyone to grow [common crop] without their permission. This is a purely legal problem: our IP laws are artifacts of the industrial revolution. The fact that the legal regime is ill-suited to modern technology is an argument for changing the legal regime, not hamstringing technological development.

Don't shackle technology to what the law can handle; demand that the legislators and judges to try and keep up.

Postscript: Intellectual property law in my field (Computational Science) is really maddeningly 19th Century to me. Algorithms — the set of instructions or the "recipe" for solving a particular problem — tend to be treated legally like a manufacturing process, which are (and should be) patentable. Every algorithm takes a set of bits as input, and turns it into a different set of bits to output, so the analogy to a manufacturing process isn't a bad one. But every algorithm is also a mathematical statement and every computer program is reducible to some corresponding lambda calculus. The idea of patenting a mathematical proof is a little silly. This dichotomy is something the courts still haven't really sorted out, even though this has been known since Church, Turing and Kleene figured it out in the 1930's. Then you throw on the added challenge of figuring out what constitutes a significantly novel or inventive advance, and the fact that there are precious few judges who grok CS or software, and you're left with a pitiable mess.

Comic Sans, Metaphors For

Todd Klein’s Blog | Comic Sans Reactions:

It’s the typeface equivalent of the office joker — a deep conformity hidden under a cheap veneer of kookiness and cliche. It’s a joke you’ve heard a thousand times that wasn’t even funny the first time. It’s a Trainspotting poster in a student flat, a leprachaun hat on St Patrick’s day

If Comic Sans was music, it would be a Cheeky Girls song played on the tinny speakers of a mobile phone on the top deck of the 171. If it was a painting it would be a cheap laminated reproduction of The Scream. If it was food it would be a limp, damp sandwich at a motorway service station. If it was a book, it would be The Da Vinci Code. If it was a wine, it would be warm Jacob’s Creek chardonnay in a plastic glass at some godawful corporate bonding session.
That's fine imagery.

Klein is quoting a comment on an article at the Guardian. Here is Klein's previous discussion of the Comic Sans typeface, which is a good and fair critique of the woefully overused setting. (There has been a lot of hullabaloo on the Internet about Comic Sans, especially since the publication of this WSJ article.)

In related thoughts, I found the 2007 eponymous documentary Helevetica really interesting even though I know next to nothing about typography.

SLF (aka FMSB7), MA

Huge congratulations to Special Lady Friend (aka the Future Mrs South Bend 7) on getting her Master of Arts yesterday!

It was a long two years spent writing (a lot), reading (even more), TAing, tutoring, librarianing, commuting, dealing with some peculiar characters, and jumping through more than a few bureaucratic hoops. It was really the least her school could do to dress her up in some vividly colored robes and a goofy hat and send her away with some sheepskin.

Education: Woo!

04 May 2009

Sign that I need therapy? Or should file for a patent? You decide!

I had a dream in which I couldn't decide whether I want to smoke my hookah for the first time this Spring, or go for a walk. So I went to the basement, rounded up some rubber surgical tubing, a few lengths of rope, some wire and some scraps of mesh screen, got a small radio flier out of the garage, and built a rig to stabilize my hookah as I pull it around in the wagon as I went for my walk. Genius.

It was suspended from the walls of the wagon with the rubber tubing to absorb shocks, and I built a little cage of screens and wires that sat above the bowl to keep the coals from bouncing off. I thought it was a pretty clever design considering I was unconscious when I came up with it.

01 May 2009

Blame: Redux

If you think it would be that difficult for Democrats to convince undecided voters that the GOP is to blame for obstructing progress despite a Democratic supermajority, consider this sad tale of Eloism:
About 6-7 years ago, I was in a philosophy class at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (good science/engineering school) and the teaching assistant was explaining Descartes. He was trying to show how things don't always happen the way we think they will and explained that, while a pen always falls when you drop it on Earth, it would just float away if you let go of it on the Moon.

My jaw dropped a little. I blurted "What?!'' Looking around the room, I saw that only my friend Mark and one other student looked confused by the TA's statement. The other 17 people just looked at me like "What's your problem?''

"But a pen would fall if you dropped it on the Moon, just more slowly.'' I protested.

"No it wouldn't.'' the TA explained calmly, "because you're too far away from the Earth's gravity.''

Think. Think. Aha! "You saw the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, didn't you?'' I countered, "why didn't they float away?'' "Because they were wearing heavy boots.'' he responded, as if this made perfect sense (remember, this is a Philosophy TA who's had plenty of logic classes).

By then I realized that we were each living in totally different worlds, and did not speak each others language, so I gave up. As we left the room, my friend Mark was raging. "My God! How can all those people be so stupid?''

I tried to be understanding. "Mark, they knew this stuff at one time, but it's not part of their basic view of the world, so they've forgotten it. Most people could probably make the same mistake.'' To prove my point, we went back to our dorm room and began randomly selecting names from the campus phone book. We called about 30 people and asked each this question:
If you're standing on the Moon holding a pen, and you let go, will it a) float away, b) float where it is, or c) fall to the ground?
About 47 percent got this question correct. Of the ones who got it wrong, we asked the obvious follow-up question:
You've seen films of the APOLLO astronauts walking around on the Moon, why didn't they fall off?

About 20 percent of the people changed their answer to the first question when they heard this one! But the most amazing part was that about half of them confidently answered, "Because they were wearing heavy boots."

Like TJIC pointed out, "These people vote."


Going to the Mat | Obama Can't Blame Republicans Now

Bill Kristol has this bit of 'good news':
Similarly and contrarianly, I wonder if today’s Arlen Specter party switch, this time to the president’s party, won’t end up being bad for President Obama and the Democrats. With the likely seating of Al Franken from Minnesota, Democrats will have 60 seats in the Senate, giving Obama unambiguous governing majorities in both bodies. He’ll be responsible for everything. GOP obstructionism will go away as an issue, and Democratic defections will become the constant worry and story line. This will make it easier for GOP candidates in 2010 to ask to be elected to help restore some checks and balance in Washington -- and, meanwhile, Specter’s party change won’t likely have made much difference in getting key legislation passed or not. So, losing Specter may help produce greater GOP gains in November 2010, and a brighter Republican future.
Now, Obama owns everything that happens in Washington and he can't blame the GOP for whatever goes wrong.
I've seen this sentiment a few places, and I don't buy it. There's a world of difference between "It won't be the GOP's fault" and "The Democrats can't convince people it's the GOP's fault."

You tell the average undecided voter that it's the Republicans that are holding up the hopënchange enough times and they'll believe it. They don't know what a supermajority is, they don't know how many GOP and Dem senators there are, they aren't familiar with process, and even if they were they don't pay any attention to it.

Besides, a big chunk of voters are heavily invested psychologically in the notion that Obama will make their lives demonstrably better. If that doesn't materialize they have two options: admit that they were wrong about putting their trust in him, or find somebody else to blame. "You were duped, he couldn't deliver on his promises" is a much harder sell than "Obama — and you! — are victims of bitter, partisan Republican opposition" no matter how the Senate caucuses.

This isn't to say that the Democrats won't take a hit for over promising and under delivering in 2010 and 2012, but don't get ahead of yourselves thinking Specter changes everything.

Exotic Beasts from Faraway Lands

DCist | Hindu Wedding to Involve Elephants:

The Renaissance Mayflower Hotel sent word around today that DeSales St. NW between Connecticut Ave. NW and 17th St. NW will be closed starting at 4:30 p.m. for a traditional Hindu wedding procession. D.C. residents Shilpa Maheshwari and Neil Agarwal are getting married today, and the Baraat ceremony will involve the groom arriving on an elephant as he and his family proceed down DeSales St.
(1) That's fantastic.

(2) I know her!

(3) I'm completely jealous of the groom. Forget limos, now I want to arrive to my wedding on a bison or something. Or a robot.

Update: DCist has a photo